Hunger Games

It is said that success has many fathers, failure is an orphan. Who can be held responsible when the fathers of a scheme that starts to go sour leave office? I thought about this recently when news came through that a second food truck operator had dropped out without even getting onto the road. Moreover the minister responsible conceded that some of the locations selected by the government were less than ideal.

Hong Kong’s food truck scheme was launched by then Financial Secretary John Tsang in his 2015 budget speech. He had seen such arrangements working well in other countries. Tsang stepped down last November to run (unsuccessfully) for the post of chief executive. As the idea was presented as a tourism promotion item, the minister responsible for that sector, Greg So, was put in charge of implementation. His term of office expires at the end of this month and he has indicated he will not stay on.

I feel bound to say the scheme was pretty cack handed from the outset. Where Bangkok and other Asian cities are famous for their street food scene, and Hong Kong used to be, the government here did its best to drive "food for man" hawkers out of business on health and hygiene grounds. If they wished to survive they had to move into proper cooked food centres. The conclusion was based on the premise that health concerns should trump "atmosphere" in a crowded city like ours, which is a legitimate point of view.

In deciding to revive the concept, albeit to a limited extent, the government made some pretty fundamental decisions. First, it resolved that though the food is being sold from trucks with wheels, the vehicles are not free to move around. In other words, customers must come to where the food is, the trucks are not free to go where the customers are. In which case one may well ask what is the difference between a food truck a la Hong Kong and a fixed restaurant or kiosk.

Secondly, the government determined the locations where food trucks could operate and allocated the spaces. It selected eight spaces adjacent to existing tourist hotspots, two spaces at each hence room for a total of 16 trucks.

Next came the selection process. Invitations were invited and assessed according to food concept, menu, business and financial proposals, design of the vehicle etc. One has to ask what expertise civil servants have in at least some of these areas and how it compares to experience of actual operators. Overall the scheme comes across more as a bureaucratic exercise rather than an attempt to create a new culinary experience.

Inevitably given the circumstances of its birth, the pilot scheme has run into headwinds. Only one of the eight locations is apparently profitable – the one next to Disneyland where of course it is cannibalising profits of the theme park operator who relies in part on turnover at his own catering outlets.

But if we take a step back and look at the wider picture, these teething problems seem less significant. What is at issue is the whole point of the scheme at all. Why, if food trucks are a good idea, are we only targeting tourists? There may be a case on traffic congestion grounds for limiting the overall number, but why is the government selecting the locations? Above all, why can’t the trucks move to where the demand for their products is which may be different at different times of day? So a truck could be serving breakfast to students and office workers in the morning at MTR entrances and transport interchanges, then providing noodles or lunch boxes close to schools and offices at mid-day, moving on to more exotic fare in the evenings close to entertainment centres including, naturally, tourist areas.

In other words, why don’t we do what we know works best in Hong Kong and let the market – individual entrepreneurs – decide what to do rather than try to plan everything centrally.

It may be too early (and unfair) to declare the scheme a failure. After all, we are only at the pilot stage. Nor is this column intended as a criticism of the civil servants concerned, especially those in the Tourism Commission. They are loyal and hardworking and will no doubt do their best to fine tune the arrangements to make the best of the direction that has been set for them by their political masters. But if it turns out the scheme cannot be rescued because it was misconceived at the outset, then my fear is it will be the civil servants who end up taking responsibility. The old fathers have retired, and the new ones will say the baby is nothing to do with them. Orphanage here we come.